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Monday, July 27, 2015

Director John Caird's Labour of Love

Director John Caird

Hello, my darlings. The summer continues apace! And so does my series of my recent Stratford Festival SceneNotes interviews with some of the amazing talented theatre people who pass through my town every season.

Today's special guest... British theatre director extraordinaire, John Caird. Mr. Caird is just putting the final touches on his production of Love's Labour's Lost, and he had a chat with me in between rehearsals a few weeks ago. [He also bought and read Base Spirits, which was very kind of him when he's so busy! He enjoyed it-- found it very scary indeed. He'll pass it onto his son, also a director-- who has actually staged A Yorkshire Tragedy, the dramatic source and inspiration for my novel.)

Without further ado...

In a long and illustrious career studded with Tony and Olivier Awards, Alberta-born director John Caird is perhaps best known for the international smash hit musical, Les Misérables. I caught up with him during a break in rehearsals for Love's Labour's Lost.

Q: Despite having directed Shakespeare productions in the United Kingdom and all around the world, this is your Stratford Festival debut, is it not?

John Caird: Indeed it is! My coming here to direct Love’s Labour’s Lost this season is the culmination of a decades-long conversation with the Festival. I’ve always wanted to work here; the timing just never seemed to be right for me before now. I was too ensconced in my work with the RSC, the National Theatre and the West End, and my family life kept me in London. You could say that the Festival and I have enjoyed an ongoing mutual flirtation. It’s great to finally be here at long last.

Q: As a resident director with the Royal Shakespeare Company from the 1970s to the ’90s and beyond, you certainly have an excellent grounding in Shakespeare’s works. But you also have a full and varied background directing new plays, musical theatre and opera. Are there a lot of differences between directing Shakespeare and an opera?

JC: Opera is a very different world altogether. In regular theatre, the director is the artistic authority and textual storyteller – although in the case of developing a new play for production, the playwright is in charge of the storytelling process. In opera, the conductor is the ultimate artistic authority. Opera as performed today is not theatre in any true sense of the word but rather a dramatic branch of classical music. The criteria for excellence are all defined by the quality of the music and the performances of the singers and musicians. As a director, it is not as intellectually engaging as the process of theatre production, and the actual repertoire is quite small. I enjoy it in a very different way.

When I’m directing Shakespeare, most of the actors are generally coming to their roles for the first time. In opera, the performers will often have sung their parts multiple times in other productions – as many as a dozen times or more.

Audiences for opera tend to be dedicated classical music types. They are not necessarily lovers of theatre; in fact, there is surprisingly little crossover between the patrons of opera and theatre. Opera is also horrifically pricey to stage – it is said there is only one thing more expensive than opera, and that’s war! Opera is highly dependent on affluent sponsors and patrons, whereas theatre – Shakespearean theatre in particular – is largely supported by its extremely loyal and enthusiastic audiences.

Q: Les Misérables really opened up the world stage for your theatre career. What is it like to direct Shakespeare in a different language?

JC: I’ve been very lucky with Les Misérables and the opportunities it’s given me. Thirty years later, and it’s still going strong. Who knew? Before Les Miz, I was used to my productions being tossed in the bin after a six-week run!

Since 2009, as the principal guest director at Sweden’s Royal Dramatic Theatre of Stockholm, I’ve directed A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest, The Merry Wives of Windsor and Romeo and Juliet in Swedish. I have developed great relationships with a team of translators and dramaturges and actors as we refine the text in workshop and rehearsal. I supervise the translation process. The challenge is that English has a huge vocabulary compared to Swedish; there are over 650,000 words in English because the language was fed by so many other source languages, and Shakespeare really loved to experiment and play with a whole new vocabulary all his own.

I’m also really enjoying working on Shakespeare in Japan. Earlier this year in Tokyo, I directed Twelfth Night – or Juni Ya – in Japanese. I love working in other languages and cultures. It makes the old, familiar texts completely fresh, and the audiences aren’t jaded: these stories are much newer to them, whereas in the West we can sometimes suffer from cultural fatigue.

Q: How are you finding your first Stratford experience so far? What can audiences expect from your staging of Love’s Labour’s Lost?

JC: I have been extremely lucky with the entire cast. Every single company member is highly talented and motivated. These are actors who really know and understand the language and how to use the verse. Even at the RSC, new young actors have to be taught how to do all of that. Training is key: I think your Birmingham Conservatory for Classical Theatre gives the Festival a unique advantage in honing the next generation of Shakespearean performers.

Love’s Labour’s Lost is a very “young” play – very youth-orientated, so having so many recent Conservatory students in the cast is wonderful. As a group, they have a lovely relaxation born of familiarity with one another and they are all extremely lively! No one seems to bring much ego to the party. I like that. Stratford as a whole seems extraordinarily calm and restful. I’m enjoying the “college campus” sort of feel the place has.

Love’s Labour’s Lost is also a very delicate play. The plot doesn’t add up to much, so you can’t load too much modern reference onto it without the danger of the whole thing snapping. The characters all delight in language-play that is rooted very much in its original era, so one would have to be very careful if one wanted to update it. Modernization of Shakespearean production is fine, but it has to have a solid reason or it doesn’t work. This play feels just right in its own time.

Love's Labour's Lost starts previews on July 30, and opens at the Stratford Festival on August 14. For more information on the production and to get your tickets, visit: or call the Box Office at 1.800.567.1600.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Words, Words, Words: Meet Stratford Festival's Hamlet

Oops! I've been too busy to blog again! But at least I've been happy-busy!

It's summer here in Stratford, and that means the Stratford Festival is in full-swing... which means I am busy with audio-description for a few of the productions, as well as writing articles about some of our wonderful performers and artists for the e-newsletter, SceneNotes.

As I am off to see Hamlet again tonight, here is a reprint of an interview I did with star Jonathan Goad for our January edition just before rehearsals began. Enjoy-- and come see the show!

Note: I will be audio-describing this production live for the blind and visually impaired on July 26 and again on September 5. If you know anyone who would enjoy this added accessibility, please let them know.

Q: You have a lot of experience playing leads, and are certainly no stranger to Shakespeare. Are there any previous roles in particular that you feel will help you play Hamlet?

A: You could say that all of Shakespeare’s major roles help to inform an actor’s portrayal of Hamlet. I’ve played the title role in Pericles, and though he’s a very different sort of prince in many ways, both are swept away by the magnitude of their outside circumstances. Playing that sort of lead character is a perfect background, because it makes me familiar with being at the very centre of the vortex of a play. But the successful portrayal of any part is always a team effort – and we have a great team!

A play that might give me the best grounding is Tom Murphy’s A Whistle in the Dark, which I did with The Company Theatre in Toronto a few years back. Our director, Jason Byrne, said to me, “This play is a bit of a Hamlet” – referring to the overwhelming scale of the dilemma in the drama and the paradigm shift in the main character. It has a lot of obvious parallels.

Q: Hamlet is arguably Shakespeare’s best-known role, filled with some of his most famous quotes. Did this daunt you at all when you were cast?

A: As with any great leading part, there is a great responsibility to be the glue of the play, so you absolutely have to bring your “A” game to every single second of every performance and be 100% on every night. You need to find the truth in every moment to reach your full potential, and to fully reach the audience.

The real challenge in doing such a famous play is to ensure that the viewer will truly care. You want it to be relevant to them, here and now. Hamlet’s character is so multi-dimensional – on a huge intellectual, emotional and physical scale. It’s his philosophical revealing of his inner self – his vulnerability – that draws us in and takes us into a sort of universal experience to which everyone can relate. An actor wants to bring a Hamlet to the stage that will connect with the audience on an authentic human level.

The big speech, “To be, or not to be,” is only one of his six incredible soliloquies. It’s a pause for breath in the middle of the action, and he never refers to himself: it’s a speech about a collective humanity. The entire play is open to so many questions that take on a life of their own. Is he really mad? Suicidal? Does he really love Ophelia? It’s a journey worth continually investigating from production to production – and from performance to performance.

At the end of the day, what will really grab the audience is the fact that Hamlet is still a remarkable revenge tragedy: a great yarn full of high stakes, high tension and knock-it-out-of-the-park moments.

Q: Hamlet is famous for his melancholy. To end on a positive note, name five things that make you happy.

A: One: First and foremost, my wonderful family.

Two: Anything with a board! I love skateboarding, long-boarding, snowboarding – and I hope to get in a week of pre-Hamlet surfing this winter.

Three: Community. By that I mean the remarkable community of the theatre and everyone who makes a show happen – and also the community formed between performers and their audiences.

Four: I love to learn. I have been doing more and more teaching, and in doing so I always am learning new things myself.

Five: Young people: they possess such boundless excitement, enthusiasm and potential.